Aspiring dancers must choose entrepreneurship or the arts

Shawn Short
Shawn Short

Shawn Short

You know it’s hard out here for a pimp, when he’s trying to make the money for the rent.” Those lyrics, featured in the Grammy-winning movie “Hustle and Flow,” made perfect sense for star Terrence Howard’s character. But for many in the dance industry, it’s a reality that resonates loud and clear.

To many dancers’ lament, money is tight and the pool is shrinking, with artists making up only 1.4% of the total workforce, according to a report from the National Endowment on the Arts released in 2011.

Moreover, racial and ethnic minorities were the largest demographic, making up 41% of artists but only 32% the national workforce. That means African-Americans still view dance as a viable career choice, even if there aren’t enough jobs to support those who are interested.

On the other hand, business ownership is on the rise with sizable gains made for women and minority business owners, with the latter totaling 5.8 million, according to 2007 data from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). That’s a 46% increase from 2002.

In a perfect world, more businesses and “pro-minority” organizations would hire more African-American artists, which is easier said than done. And with blacks spending and buying power reaching the trillions, our society could use a little job creation, according to Umstead, R Thomas’ “BET: African-Americans Grow in Numbers, Buying Power.”

Typically, dancers can find a host of places to start their careers. But unless you’re hunting for a choreographer who insists on his or her dancers being “artistic collaborators,” the majority or choreographers want an artist that is solely looking to grow as a dancer.

The dance industry has become very commercial, with dancers juggling several “projects” to find more permanent employment. But, when taking a cue from the corporate world, that means any job held for less than a year is not worth putting on your resume.

The question for aspiring dancers is this: Do you want be an entrepreneur or traditional artist?

Dance entrepreneurship can help pay the bills

As an emerging company director stepping into my seventh season, I have seen many aspiring African-American dancers fresh out of college who were not equipped for professional-level dancing yet felt entitled to full-time pay with benefits and choreographic perks versus performance stipends just because they held a degree.

It’s not that simple.

Unless an organization’s operating budget is at least $500,000, a livable full-time salary is not going to materialize. Dance artists must be willing to accept that there will be times, where they will perform for no pay or be compensated with a small honorarium.

However, artistic entrepreneurship, which focuses on both the craft and business, can help create job opportunities for dancers who want more creative input. Artistic entrepreneurship is part of a relatively new and growing field of academic study with programs in both the university and non-university learning structure. University arts entrepreneurship programs are theatre-related, while those from non-university organizations serve independent artists. (For more information on arts entrepreneurship please see Theatre Communication Group’s article, “Open For Business” by Janice C. Simpson.)

Dance entrepreneurship and concert dance are both viable career paths. But you have to decide early on whether you want more artistic input in the creative process, or to hone your talent for years under a dance organization.

Shawn Short is the Founder and Artistic Director of Dissonance Dance Theatre in Washington, DC. He writes the Director-to-Director column for the print issue of Black Dance Magazine.


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